What is an NGO? Are they typically nonprofits? What are the features of an NGO?

By Asad Awan4 min read · Posted Apr 11, 2024


NGOs are the backbone of humanitarian efforts all over the world. Founded on the principles of public welfare, an NGO or Non-Governmental Organization is a group that operates independently of any government.

NGOs are typically non-profit organizations that are mission-driven to address social, economic, environmental, and political issues. These organizations operate transnationally on both global and local levels, frequently engage with the civil society, encourage voluntary participation, and maintain transparency, flexibility, and innovation.

NGOs address many issues, ranging from humanitarian assistance in conflict zones to climate change advocacy.

This article describes the definition of an NGO, its features, and its non-profit status.

Origin of NGOs

According to Harvard Law School, the origin of NGOs can be traced back to social movements like anti-slavery campaigns in the 19th century and the Indian Freedom Movement in the early 20th century. These moments highlighted the limitations of governments, emphasizing the need to create change outside government control.

As a result, organized groups formed with specific missions like raising awareness and addressing inequality. Anti-Slavery Society in 1839 and Servants of India in 1905 are examples of NGOs operating on transnational levels in the 19th and 20th centuries, laying the groundwork for the modern NGOs.

NGOs officially originated with the emergence of the United Nations after World War II. The term was first introduced in Article 71 of the UN. In 1945, the UN recognized the role of NGOs in the UN’s mission to address global problems like human rights violations, poverty, and hunger. This recognition led to a surge in the formation of NGOs worldwide like Care International.

Today, there are various types of NGOs, from community-based organizations to international agencies. These NGOs operate on mission-driven actions, autonomy, and voluntarism across many social institutions, such as education, religion, health, environment, wildlife, culture, agriculture, and arts.

Within these institutions, an NGO's job is to reflect the different issues in society. NGOs today often bridge the gap left by governments, usually where public services are limited or out of reach.

What are the features of an NGO?

1. NGOs are independent organizations

NGOs ensure autonomy from governmental interference and external institutions, giving themselves the liberty to carry out their missions with neutrality. This way, NGOs remain transparent and accountable for their operations, build trust and credibility, foster innovation, adapt quickly to changing situations, and contribute to positive change and sustainable development. By maintaining their independence, NGOs effectively promote social change, address pressing issues, and provide assistance.

2. NGOs are mission-driven organizations

Whether it is promoting gender equality, combating poverty, protecting human rights, providing humanitarian assistance, facilitating government and local policies, or conserving biodiversity, NGOs have clear missions that guide their efforts. In general, the mission-driven approach provides NGOs with purpose and a sense of direction, uniting all concerned parties toward a common goal.

3. NGOs encourage civil society engagement

NGOs are essential channels for dialogue and free speech. They empower communities by mobilizing citizens, promoting civil participation, providing fundraising ideas, and encouraging decision-making processes to improve developing countries' social, economic, and political conditions. This way, NGOs strengthen the core of democratic societies through civil society engagement. Their role in civil society extends beyond traditional advocacy to empowering individuals at the base level. They also support sustainable development in the communities they serve.

4. NGOs promote advocacy and activism

Many NGOs promote social justice, policy reforms, human rights, and legislative change. They question governmental bodies, social injustice, and corporate practices through their campaigns. This way, they mobilize public support, hold governments accountable for their actions, and confront social inequality. Thus, advocacy and activism are integral to an NGO’s mission because both processes address inequality, oppression, and discrimination at the grassroots.

5. NGOs uphold transparency and accountability

Being transparent and accountable is essential for NGOs to maintain trust, legitimacy, and credibility within their operations. In this regard, NGOs share their financial details, management processes, and the results of their programs with their stakeholders. They showcase responsibility and manage their resources well. Additionally, transparency promotes open communication and encourages stakeholders to participate in NGOs' missions.

6. NGOs maintain cross-sector collaboration

NGOs recognize social, economic, and environmental issues are interconnected; therefore, they often collaborate with stakeholders, government agencies, academic institutions, and other societal groups. By combining these institutions' knowledge, abilities, and resources, NGOs improve the impact of their efforts, encourage cooperation, and foster innovation all of which enhances the scalability and sustainability of their initiatives.

7. NGOs are flexible and innovative

Flexibility and innovation allow NGOs to adapt to changing social trends, evolving policies, and humanitarian emergencies. Unlike traditional bureaucratic organizations, NGOs are more agile and open, often experimenting with new approaches and pioneering solutions to emerging challenges. This way, NGOs meet their community needs, leverage new technologies, and adapt to changing situations.

8. NGOs have both global reach and local impact

While some operate within specific boundaries and communities, focusing on particular missions, most NGOs seek to address local, national, or international issues. They understand that local and global problems are linked together. Hence, they tailor their efforts to suit local public policy and involve diverse participants worldwide to honor cultural differences. As a result, NGOs remain relevant and effective both globally and locally.


NGOs are crucial elements of society focused on addressing global and local social, economic, and political issues. They embody social responsibility, civil engagement, and collective action, fostering positive change worldwide.

While the nonprofit status is commonly associated with NGOs, some NGOs do add a profitable process to support their cause and develop a pragmatic approach towards achieving their goals. From tailoring their efforts as per the local public policy to involving diverse participants to respect cultural differences, NGOs stay helpful, and their work remains sustainable, no matter where they are.

About The Author



Join Our Community

Looking for something else? Get your questions answered in our free online learning community!

Entrepreneurial Resources

Jumpstart your next business with our free resource library.



Our organization cannot give out official legal/fiscal guidance. All articles are written by volunteers and it may be beneficial to contact professionals to assist your understanding of the information and to guide your action. Pitch Labs bears no responsibility for the results of actions taken based off of article content or any other form of assistance given.